Miners who suffer from an advanced form of black lung disease has skyrocketed
The proportion of coal miners who suffer from an advanced form of black lung disease has skyrocketed in central Appalachia in recent years, according to experts with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (NIOSH)
In a letter published Monday in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the NIOSH scientists wrote that the prevalence of Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF, a particularly lethal form of black lung, had reached its highest rate since the 1970’s in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
Coal miners develop black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, through prolonged exposure to the coal dust in a mine’s atmosphere. It’s a miserable occupational lung disease that forces miners to live out their last days coughing and gasping for air. Families should not have to go through this preventable tragedy. Witnessing a family member slowly suffocated to death is unconscionable. NIOSH says the disease played a role in an estimated 10,000 deaths over a recent 10-year period.
The tragic comeback could been prevented and the numbers, had the responsible parties acted, should have declined. Instead PMF is at levels not seen since the 1970’s. It is preventable but once a miner has PMF the occupational disease is not curable. At best, according to the American Lung Association, “doctors treat the symptoms and complications of the disease to lessen breathing difficulties”.
“Each of these cases is a tragedy and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease,” wrote David J. Blackley and Cara N. Halldin, officials with NIOSH, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control.
According to Monday’s letter, PMF was “virtually eradicated” just 15 years ago, but the sample of long-term underground miners from last year showed a nearly ten-fold increase, to 3.23 percent of workers, in the central Appalachian states.
The officials attributed the alarming spike to two likely factors: workers’ overexposure to coal dust, with many miners now working longer hours, or an “increased toxicity” in dust composition — that is, even unhealthier air in today’s mines. They are working longer hours in highly toxic conditions. Seems pretty open and obvious if one is looking to prevent lung disease to its workers.
The study, by researchers at NIOSH, a respected group focused on workers safety, analyzed results from a long-term surveillance program. The program required that miners periodically undergo chest X-rays to help establish a baseline and then track any progression or changes.
The increase in cases of disease reflects the proportion of underground miners with experience of 25 years or more who had X-ray evidence of severe black lung while still working. The disease develops from long-term exposure to coal dust and can lead to shortness of breath, disability and death. Once again all preventable if the companies were to focus 110% effort towards employee safety.
As it grapples with a resurgence of black lung in many areas, the Labor Department recently announced it is updating and tightening its black lung regulations for the mining industry. Most notably, the reforms will lower a mine’s allowable level of coal dust from 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air to 1.5, a move meant to force operators to better ventilate their mines.
However industry continues to fight these matters. The senior vice president of the National Mining Association, admits that the industry has been aware of increased black lung in the region and companies were supposed to be taking steps to address the issue. At the same time, however, the National Mining Association filed a lawsuit in federal court in Atlanta in June seeking to block the new safety rules. This appears to be corporate double speak at its best.
The rule changes, if implemented and complied with, will also overhaul how operators must monitor their dust levels. Under the new regulations, miners will be equipped with a personal dust monitor that provides real-time readings of a mine’s coal dust level. Under the old system, miners wore personal dust pumps that sampled the air and were then sent to regulators for analysis.
For years and years, coal operators have been able to game the system by submitting fraudulent dust samples to regulators, making the air seem less dangerous than it really is. The new dust monitors will likely make it harder for companies to mislead regulators.
The companies monitor themselves and when this occurs corners are cut and data is manipulated. Corporations are driven by profit and focus on safety only when forced to. Even in today’s highly regulated industry workers are seen as production tools and ignored as humans with families to support. Much like a toaster, if it breaks down, throw it out and get a new one.
Experts believe it will take years to slow the prevalence of black lung in Central Appalachia because the long latency period of the disease means other miners already have likely been exposed to unhealthy levels of dust but haven’t been diagnosed. For these miners the proposed regulations will be too late to save them from the misery of the disease.
The attorneys at Wallace & Graham P.A. in Salisbury NC are experienced in handling occupational illness and injury claims and have focused on lung diseases caused by occupational and household exposure. The firm has the resources and knowledge to help miners and their families who have been needlessly and carelessly afflicted with the disease.
The firm is experienced in establishing medical monitoring programs and in successfully documenting the injuries and seeking relief from the responsible corporations who profited from the miners work.
Please feel free to contact Wallace & Graham at 1-800-849-5291 for a free no obligation confidential consultation about your rights and remedies under the law. We can help.